Associate Editor Rachel Klein recently took a three-week trip to Japan, which began in Tokyo with day trips to Kamakura and Hakone, and then to Takayama in the Japanese Alps before heading to Kyoto and surrounding towns. It ended with an impromptu trip to Hiroshima and the magical island of Miyajima. She spent entire afternoons at sacred temples, stayed in traditional inns called “ryokan,” bathed in “onsen,” and ate tons of sushi and other Japanese treats without breaking the bank. Japan is comprised of four main islands—the largest of which is Honshu—and Tokyo, its largest city, is home to more than 12 million people.
I’d never been to Asia and wanted desperately to go, but I might not have gone if I hadn’t had enough frequent-flyer miles to sit in business class. Japanese culture fascinates me and I love Japanese food. Seeing the temples and Buddhism in action (I actually spent a night at a Buddhist temple at Mt. Koya and participated in a 6 a.m. service) particularly interested me because I minored in comparative religion in college.
What was the best part of the trip?
The baths. For the Japanese, bathing is an evening social event and a ritual. The “onsen,” which are neighborhood bathhouses or hot springs in the mountains, are a place to relax and exchange gossip. I stumbled upon a tiny neighborhood bathhouse on my way back from hiking up Inari Shrine, a mountain with countless orange tori in Kyoto, and were the only gaijin (non-Japanese) there. After the baths (men and women bathe separately), guys drank Asahi in the lounge and the mothers had their children—who were dressed in their pajamas and ready for bed—practice their English with me. The most expensive night of the trip was at a traditional ryokan in Takayama, in the Japanese Alps, where the baths were totally luxe.
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What surprised you about Japan?
That Japan was not expensive, or no more expensive than your average major city. It’s like when people tell you New York is expensive—it can be if you only shop and eat on Madison Avenue!
Of course you hear about the frenetic pace before you go, but it’s hard to believe until you see it. The train stations are packed at 1 a.m. People somehow manage to stay out all night and get up for work the next day—or they never go to sleep. We think of New York as a 24-hour city, but Tokyo definitely put New York to shame.
What was essential on your trip?
The rail pass. A two-week pass costs about $400 at the office in midtown Manhattan (461 5th Ave., 6th Floor; 1-800-525-3663). You can’t get them once you’re in Japan. It may seem like a lot to spend, but it’s well worth it if you plan to see several cities and towns. Don’t bother paying extra for first class “green car” tickets—it isn’t a huge difference for the price. The rail pass allowed me to take an unplanned trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima, two places I’d hoped to see but didn’t think we’d have the time.
What would you do differently if you had to do it all again?
I wouldn’t start in Tokyo. Jetlag going halfway around the world for the first time was no joke; I wasn’t really able to enjoy the nightlife in Tokyo because I was deliriously tired. It would have been much better to start in a smaller town, maybe even Kyoto, where there isn’t quite as much to do at night.
What advice do you have for someone going to Japan?
Try the traditional breakfast, which will involve fish of some kind, at least once. Take time out from sightseeing to relax—relaxing can be a challenge there; don’t stay in a hotel, as they’re expensive and you’ll have a much more authentic and fun experience staying in ryokan; at some point during the trip you’re going to have to use a Japanese toilet, which involves a urinal on the floor (it’s not bad, just different) and, in ryokan or private homes, a somewhat complicated orchestration of changing slippers. Just make sure you know the details ahead of time.